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I Am a Woman You Do Not Know

Written by: Soffía Auður Birgisdóttir |

In the 1940s, a battle was waged within the Icelandic literary world over how poetry should be written. On one side were those representing the strong Icelandic literary tradition, people who knew how ‘a decent poem’ should look – on the other side was a group of young poets who wanted a looser lyrical form.

The fight over modernism was a fight between men. Women were strangely absent from this battle, as they were from the discussion of new tendencies in art.

The group of Icelandic modernists is, in fact, not large; only five lyrical poets belong to the group who, based on a quote from a Halldór Laxness novel, are called the Atom Poets. A single woman, Arnfríður Jónatansdóttir (born 1923), ought to be included as an Atom Poet, because she fulfils all the requirements: she is a child of the city, from the right generation, and her poems display the same characteristics as the poetry of the Atom Poets: they are written in free form, in a concentrated language, and she makes free use of imagery.

Before the emergence of the Atom Poets numerous other poets had straddled the divide between tradition and innovation, and before Arnfríður Jónatansdóttir many female poets had merged the old and the new in their poetry. This holds true of authors such as Sigríður Einars frá Munaðarnesi (1893-1973) and Halldóra B. Björnsson (1907-1968). In their first poetry collections, there are poems that follow traditional principles concerning both form and content, but both women published books later in life in which a traditional form has given way to a new, liberated poetic form.

The positioning, within Icelandic literary history, of poets such as Sigríður Einars frá Munaðarnesi and Halldóra B. Björnsson is not a straightforward matter. And this problem illustrates their poetic conflicts. It is as though they are, themselves, in doubt about their position; they are balanced between two eras, and are at the same time, as women, outside of the tradition. They want to prove themselves within a tradition to which they do not, in fact, belong, and they are at the same time filled with enthusiasm for the free-form poetry that they came to know through, for instance, their work as translators. They gave themselves whole-heartedly to the new, liberated poetry after having demonstrated, in their debuts, their mastery of the traditional craft – rhyming, alliterative poems in a strict, rhythmical form.

Between the Stream and the River

Tryggvadóttir, Nina (1913-1968): Inni. 1944. Oil on canvas. Listasafn Íslands, Reykjavík

“Hver sækir nú fyrir mig / vatnið í brunninn?” (Who will now fetch for me / water from the well?) an old woman asks in the poem “Mynd” (Picture), in what turned out to be Sigríður Einars frá Munaðarnesi’s last poetry collection, Í svölu rjóðri (1971; In a Chilly Glade). Water appears again and again in her poems, and represents a life-giving principle.

Sigríður Einars’s second poetry collection is called Milli lækjar og ár (1956; Between the Stream and the River), and if the water is interpreted as being the source of poetry, the title becomes symbolic for the author’s position regarding the lyrical tradition. She is placed between a popular lyrical tradition and modernism: between the stream that usually runs gently along, and the river whose current is stronger.

What received the most attention in Sigríður Einars’s debut, Kveður í runni (1930; The Shrubbery is Singing), was the prose poems, which were partly translations, partly her own original work. The book contains eight prose poems by Sigbjørn Obstfelder, but also three of her own prose poems. She uses concentrated but strong imagery in them, and describes emotions and states of mind that are connected with love and death. She makes use of surprising metaphors which, together with the prose form itself, attracted the attention of young fans of lyric poetry when the book appeared. But even though the book’s prose poems were marked by innovation, most of the poems were written in a traditional form.

Sigríður Einars’s sléttubönd:

Syngdu lengi. Yndisóð óma bjarta gefðu.
Yngdu mengi. Ljúfust ljóð ljóma hjarta vefðu.

“Sing a long time. Crazy-beautiful, give the clear tone.
Let the mass be revitalised. Weave the loveliest poems with the heart’s lustre”.

Sléttubönd is a type of poetry that can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Sléttubönd are characterised by alliteration, in particular the kind that applies to the first accented syllable of the even-numbered lines, as well as by many complicated rhymes. A stanza composed according to all the rules of the genre contains alliteration, internal rhymes, and end-rhymes (as in the above example); that is to say, all the syllables in the first half rhyme with all the corresponding syllables in the second half. One should also be able to read sléttubönd backwards.

Sigríður Einars’s last two books, Laufþytur (The Rustle of Leaves) and Í svölu rjóðri (In a Chilly Glade), were published in 1970 and 1971. She was approaching eighty years of age at that time: her writings deal to a large extent with a course of life that is coming to an end, and she makes use of imagery concerning withered vegetation and autumn. The contrast between town and countryside is also present in her work; it is rooted in the life experience of the generation she belongs to. But many of the poems are timeless and are relevant to all generations. The poem “Um þjoðveginn” (On the Ring Road), Laufþytur, deals with women who roll stones off a road so that it is easier to travel by it. In the first verse there are only a few women, but they gradually increase in number. The group is joined by slave women who cast off “chains and rags”, until, in the last verse, millions of women form a front “í baráttu fyrir / frelsi, réttlæti, / friði og samúð / í fegurri heimi” (in the fight for / freedom, justice, / peace and solidarity / in a more beautiful world).

In the long stretch of time between the publication of Sigríður Einars’s poems, she worked as a translator, and she translated both poems and novels. She played an important part in the translation of the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, which was translated by her husband, Karl Ísfeld. Sigríður Einars assisted him with the translation, and completed it after his death.

“When will we experience spring without news of war?”

Halldóra B. Björnsson was a few years older than Sigríður Einars had been, was in fact forty-two years old, when her debut collection, Ljóð (Poems), appeared in 1949. The poems in the book are, nevertheless, much older than the date of publication suggests, for they were written in the years 1928-30 and 1940-46. Only two of the book’s poems are written in the year of publication, and they are markedly different from the other poems. Even though a melancholia and pessimism really does reign in Halldóra B. Björnsson’s late poems, this atmosphere tends to be connected to the crimes that are committed in the name of battle and war, not to individual people’s existence and intimate personal relations.

Halldóra B. Björnsson did not publish a book of her own poems again until almost twenty years later, in 1968, when she brought out two modernist poetry collections, Við sanda (By the Sandy Plains) and Jarðljóð (Earth Poems). She died in the same year.

Halldóra B. Björnsson’s novel, Eitt er það land (1955; There is a Land), is structured around fragments of childhood memories, and it is, in its field, unique in Icelandic literature. She here composes a poetic narrative of a world seen from a child’s perspective, full of the child’s wisdom and the adults’ experience. The land of the novel is a ‘no man’s land’ – a utopia, the innocent child’s world, which at the same time represents the lost world of the Icelandic farming community in which Halldóra B. Björnsson grew up, but which was threatened by ‘the present day’ and by a foreign military power, as she describes it in many of her poems.

An Atom Poet in a Dress Meets a Top Hat

The contrast between a child and an army is a much-used contrast in Halldóra B. Björnsson’s oeuvre, and it can also be found in Arnfríður Jónatansdóttir’s poetry collection Þröskuldur hússins er þjöl (1958; The Threshold of the House is a File), and in the strong cycle of poems at the start of her book “Barn vildi byggja” (A Child Wanted to Build). The first-person speaker defines herself both as a child “ég var barn” and as a woman “ég er kona”, and she does not escape unscathed from her encounters with the patriarchal world, which assumes a grotesque form in the sixth verse of the cycle:

I walked away.
Then I met a top hat.
It came towards me
in fits and starts.
Hello I said.
“Who are you?” it answered.
I am a woman you do not know.
Where are the people and children?
Then it screeched:
“Idiot, I am everything – nothing exists
except me, you idiot”.
It rose up in the air, blocked out the sun.
Then I saw it was a beetle
with great mandibles, a full belly.

Ég gekk burt.
Þá mætti ég pípuhatti.
Hann kom á móti mér
í hlykkjum og rykkjum.
Góðan dag sagði ég.
“Hver ert þú?” anzaði hann.
Ég er kona sem þú þekkir ekki.
Hvar er fólkið og börnin?
Þá orgaði hann:
“Fífl, ég er allt – það er ekkert til
nema ég, fíflið þitt”.
Hann hófst á loft, skyggði á sólina.
Þá sá ég að hann var padda
með stóra bitkróka, mettan kvið.

The top hat is a phallic symbol and also symbolises the war lords who do not give a damn about the lives of men, women, and children. The first-person speaker hears some children crying and sees people fall in battle, and when she tries to get home, she hears the chilly laughter of the top hat behind her.

Arnfríður Jónatansdóttir’s idiomatic language is, at times, difficult to understand. Her word order is unusual, her imagery is condensed, and she often uses fragments from the Icelandic folk tales and refrains from folk songs, which also lend the poems a humorous edge. Arnfríður Jónatansdóttir’s poems are the work of a mature poet who could have gone far. But she only published one collection of poetry.

Aside from Arnfríður Jónatansdóttir, there was only one woman who regularly presented modernist poems in the newspapers and journals of the 1950s. That was Þóra Elfa Björnsson, Halldóra B. Björnsson’s daughter. But she never published a book.

Translated by Brynhildur Boyce